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Blind Bear at Bay: The Russians at Tannenberg

By Anthony Brandt
Summer 2016 • MHQ Magazine

Obligated by treaties to declare war in August 1914, Russia was unprepared to attack, and in East Prussia its vast army soon proved no match for German intelligence, reconnaissance, and railways.

 

MOST WESTERN HISTORIES OF WORLD WAR I place the focus of their narratives on the Western Front, which has become a touchstone of bad leadership and futile slaughter. Yet few of those battles by themselves had the kind of influence on the postwar world that the Battle of Tannenberg did. Coming at the war’s very beginning, in late August to early September 1914, it completed the long transformation of warfare into its thoroughly modern form, and it exposed the fatal weaknesses of the Russian army—that it could generate manpower but did not have the infrastructure to support it. Tannenberg was a battle of logistics, reconnaissance, communications, and weaponry as much as it was a battle among men. To take just one small example, Russian soldiers who were there remembered their supplies coming up to the line in horse-drawn carts—and seeing German supplies arriving in long trains of motorized vehicles. That does not say it all, but it says a lot.

If the Russians had won at Tannenberg, Germany would have been forced to devote much more of its resources to the east, for the farmlands of East Prussia are not that far from Berlin. A Russian victory would have made German gains in the west extremely difficult to sustain and would probably have shortened the war. The win also might have strengthened the tsarist government enough that it could have controlled its internal turmoil through the war, with consequences for the world that are fascinating to imagine.

 

PLANNING FOR WAR, THE GERMANS did not see Russia as a serious threat. In Russia’s humiliating loss to Japan in the early 1900s, Western military planners had been impressed with Japan’s unexpected strengths as well as Russia’s leadership problems. As early as the 1880s the German General Staff under Helmuth von Moltke had developed a plan that, in the event of a two-front war—in the west against France (which had fortified its borders and built up its military after its loss to Prussia in 1871) and in the east against Russia (the war Germany feared most)—Germany would try first for a quick victory in the east, followed by a holding pattern that would allow it to concentrate on defeating the French.

A plan formulated in 1905–1906 by a subsequent chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, reversed that order. It called for a quick victory over France—to be achieved by an attack through neutral Belgium that would outflank French fortifications on its German border—while conducting only a holding pattern in the east. Once France was out of the way, the more serious business of defeating Russia could be pursued. Also, Germany had designs on Russian territory in Poland. Even then, it was looking for Lebensraum. Germans had long believed that Slavs were inferior and did not deserve their land. The Slav national animal, they joked, was the louse.

The Schlieffen Plan was based in part on treaty obligations: France and Russia were pledged to come to each other’s aid if war broke out, while Germany was aligned with the Austro-­Hungarian Empire. Each alliance had timetables for mobilization after any declaration of war. Russia had agreed in treaty negotiations to have 800,000 men ready to face the German army 15 days after war was declared. In peacetime it maintained an army of a million men, but given Russia’s vast size and its poor rail system, getting that number to the German front in 15 days was beyond the nation’s abilities. One Russian officer called this “a strategic error of the first magnitude.”

In the event, the Russians did field more men at the outset than Germany on the border of East Prussia—485,000 versus 175,000—but an estimated half of them were illiterate peasants doing their obligatory military service. They were less well trained than the Germans, and their huge tangle of ethnicities and languages put them at a disadvantage in the field. They also lacked the depth of equipment available to the Germans. Their field artillery was decent but deficient in longer-range howitzers. They had pilots and aircraft but did not understand the utility of aerial reconnaissance, and the Russian equivalent of a Zeppelin was totally ineffective.

The Russians were also deficient in communications: Not until more than a week after battle was joined did they bother to encrypt wireless messages, which the Germans intercepted. When they finally did encrypt them, the codes were so elementary that the Germans rapidly cracked them. Even then, important messages were often sent in the clear, owing to a scarcity of codebooks and to the fact that different Russian units were using different codes. Thanks to their reconnaissance planes, the Germans usually knew where Russian forces were and where they were going. On this score the Russians were largely clueless about the enemy’s position, as they relied on Cossacks on horseback rather than aircraft for reconnaissance. These differences showed themselves right away, in the first days of the war.

 

EAST PRUSSIA JUTS LIKE A LARGE THUMB into western Poland, forming a salient that looks as though it would be vulnerable to encirclement; accordingly, the Russians split their western forces in two, sending the Second Army south to attack north into the salient, while the First Army would attack from the east and join up with the Second Army. The idea was to encircle and eliminate the German Eighth Army, assigned to defend East Prussia, and drive those who survived back to Königsberg, the heavily fortified German stronghold on the Baltic Sea. Once the enemy was contained inside the Königsberg defenses, the Russians could open a road to Berlin.

In the middle of East Prussia, though, the Masurian Lakes complex ran 60 miles north to south, forming a natural defensive barrier for the Germans. Russia’s Second Army, attacking north, was to skirt this barrier to the west, while the First Army, attacking west, would skirt it to the north.

First into battle was the First Army, under command of the Russian general Pavel Karlovich von Rennenkampf, known for his courage, his unpopularity with troops, and, fatally, his neglect of reconnaissance. Rennenkampf began to probe across the East Prussian border in early August, sending cavalry to scout German positions. But the main bulk of his forces were slow to arrive, thanks to the inadequate Russian railways, and not until August 17 did something like real war begin in East Prussia.

The Russian attack was blind. First Army knew little about what units opposed it and in what strength, while German aerial reconnaissance was well planned and thorough. General Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, a harsh, heavy-set 67-year-old career officer, commanded the German Eighth Army, backed by Lieutenant Colonel Max Hoffmann, an intelligent man who seemed to understand as well as anyone the difficult job they faced in holding off the greater Russian force. Prittwitz sent his units precise, specific orders. Rennenkampf was a much looser commander, which led in the beginning to Russian units acting independently. Rennenkampf sometimes did not know where all of his cavalry units were.

Russian troops advanced at first against light opposition, living off the land, because, once again, the Russian railways behind them were unable to do the job of supplying food to the advancing armies. To make matters worse, the railways were a different gauge from those in the rest of Europe, requiring laborious changes to equipment at border crossings.

The Russian First Army attacked along a front more than 60 miles long. The sharpest fighting came at a railway depot, Stallupönen, about 10 miles inside East Prussia. The German defense of Stallupönen was unplanned; Prittwitz, worried about German losses, had ordered his field commanders to fall back, but one, General Hermann von François, had disobeyed. His I Corps confronted the Russians directly, and his losses were heavy. But so were Russian losses, well over 6,000 men. The Russians, however, could handle such casualties. What they lacked in artillery, in planning, in coordination (neither artillery nor cavalry had shown up for the battle), they had in manpower. The Germans could not afford losing such numbers. General François’s losses were heavy enough that he had to retreat west beyond Stallupönen. The Russians took the depot, along with 20 miles of East Prussia, in this early fighting, but accounts of it make the laxity of the overall Russian command and its poor communication system all too clear. The Russian Second Army had only 25 telephones and a mere 80 miles of cable, which ran out quickly when it entered East Prussia; as for field radios, they had just two. Rennenkampf in the north had to rely on messages delivered by hand. One cavalry division commander, whose orders were to protect the First Army right flank, hardly sent him messages at all. A British observer noted that the Russian attitude was “happy-go-lucky,” as if the men were fighting a war game, rather than a real war.

West of Stallupönen lay the village of Gumbinnen, where the German defense stiffened, and the fighting was fierce. Attacks, counterattacks, and more attacks on August 20–21 kept the lengthy front swinging back and forth, but the Russians held their ground, even as the dead—16,000 of them—were piling up on all sides. The Battle of Gumbinnen was the occasion for the ringing of church bells in St. Petersburg, and it greatly unsettled General Prittwitz at German headquarters. He did not know that Gumbinnen had cost the Russians so many men, and his recon pilots were reporting growing enemy activity from the Russian Second Army to his south and another Russian army on the march toward the front from Warsaw. The third Russian army turned out to be mythical and the Russian Second Army had barely moved, yet to a nervous commander with not enough manpower and heavy responsibilities, it was natural to assume the worst.

His staff, however, did not. The astute Colonel Hoffmann felt that German forces had established the basis for a complete victory over the Russians, and the aggressive General François, too, was convinced his forces could turn the battle their way. But by this time Prittwitz had already phoned the German chief of staff—the son of Helmuth von Moltke, called Moltke the Younger—to let him know that his forces would retreat behind the Vistula River, and then, if that proved impractical, to the southwest toward the Russian Second Army. Plans to that end were drawn up, and units were quietly withdrawn by rail to reposition themselves, with only a few units left behind to keep watch over Rennenkampf.

Rennenkampf, meanwhile, had unaccountably stopped. Once again, owing to the inability of his cavalry to locate German forces, he had concluded that the Germans were in full retreat, but he seemed unable to muster the energy to pursue them. In fact, German forces were in strategic retreat, shifting ground to intercept Second Army in the south. Meanwhile, Moltke had seen that Prittwitz was too nervous to handle his responsibilities, and with remarkable speed, fired him. General Paul von Hindenburg, called out of retirement, would lead the Eighth Army, with Major General Erich Ludendorff, who had made a name for himself in Belgium early in August, as chief of staff. Neither was a nervous or indecisive man.

Ludendorff no sooner accepted the job than he ordered the Eighth Army to stop the retreat, get off the trains, and concentrate its forces in southwest East Prussia, in anticipation of taking on General Aleksandr Samonov’s Second Army. He knew that the division of Russian forces into two armies was as much an opportunity as a problem. By then, August 23, Second Army was advancing into Prussia and finding little resistance—but advancing on empty stomachs, with days of no food at all. The land was sandy, the roads few and bad, and horses unavailable. Samsonov, though well liked by his men, had no experience leading a large army, and the German reconnaissance planes were overhead all the time. Soldiers on the ground would fire on them with their rifles, but that was futile, as were Russian attempts to fly combat missions against them. Samsonov, like Rennenkampf in the north, believed that the Germans were in retreat. He came to villages that had been deserted, houses destroyed. Like Rennenkampf, he extended and scattered his forces, creating a front line 60 miles long. He did not know it then, but he was about to fight the Battle of Tannenberg.

 

IN TRUTH, THE VILLAGE OF TANNENBERG was hardly involved at all in what was to come. It was like all the other villages in East Prussia, small and nondescript, of no particular tactical importance. For the Germans, however, it had great historical importance: In 1410 the Order of Teutonic Knights fought a pan-Slavic army under Władysław II, ruler of Poland at the time, on a field close to Tannenberg. The Teutonic Knights were disciplined, well armed, and experienced. The Poles had fewer knights, and their infantry was a motley collection of peasants from various provinces of Poland armed largely with farm implements, pitchforks, scythes, flails, and spears. But they did outnumber the knights, 100,000 to 83,000 according to modern estimates. In the end the Poles and their allies prevailed; the Teutonic Knights, after suffering 32,000 casualties, never recovered their reputation—and Germany never forgot them. This would be the second Battle of Tannenberg, German revenge for 400 years of humiliation. So much would it matter that Hindenburg chose to be buried in the village of Tannenberg.

This second battle was a different story, although it had parallels with the first: Once again Slavs outnumbered Germans, once again they were not as well armed or trained as the Germans. But the real advantage remained with the Germans, who knew hour by hour the Russians’ plans, their movements, and their strength. Some Russian messages were still going through clear, and information was the key that allowed the Eighth Army, despite its disadvantage in numbers, to be wherever the enemy showed up and to attack unexpectedly.

The Germans had another major advantage: a large rail network inside Prussia that enabled them to move troops quickly from one place to another. The Russians had to move men and supplies from their two railheads at the border, one in the north and another in the south. From there, they plodded on foot through the sandy soil of East Prussia. The Russians had stinted on railroads—and roads—in Poland for defensive purposes, reasoning that having no roads or railroads at the borders would thwart potential enemies. But now the Russians could not supply their own armies.

As with the First Army, the Second Army was strung out along a 60-mile front, with inevitable gaps in the lines and no strong and reliable communication system. Its 4th Division on the east flank had a few Cossacks assigned for recon, but they were never sent out. An entire German Corps was advancing from the north, but the division’s chief of staff said that “no orders for reconnaissance in this direction had been received.” Alfred Knox, the official British observer, recalled visiting a Russian field hospital where he found that no advance provision for beds had been made, and the wounded were lying all over the floor. He also noted the inability of a staff officer to read a map, leading a column of staff cars three miles down the wrong road before realizing his mistake. Most crucially, Samsonov, Second Army’s commanding officer, had only a vague idea of what was going on, ordering large units to sites where a retreat was already underway.

In the north Rennenkampf was ordered by headquarters to invest Königsberg. No one on the Russian side seemed to understand how dire their situation was. If Rennenkampf had taken his army south, as was originally planned, and attacked the Germans from behind, the Russians would have won. Instead, the Germans encircled Samsonov’s Second Army and began wiping it out.

First, they turned the Russian right flank in the area of Bisch­ofsburg on August 26, with Russian losses of 73 officers, more than 5,000 men, 4 artillery batteries, and 16 machine guns. By concentrating forces against the widely scattered pockets of Russian units, the Germans, numerically superior in this instance, could take them out one by one, relying on their rail network and the consequent speed of movement they enjoyed. Typically, Samsonov did not know what had happened when he went to bed that night.

In hard fighting the next day the Germans turned Samsonov’s left flank, but it was two days before Samsonov learned of it. With only two field radios, his communication system was so bad and so leaky that throughout the battle, he remained in the dark about where many of his units were, whether they were winning or losing, even the fact that the Germans were already in the process of enveloping his army. He did not learn of the evening rout on his right flank until 9 the next morning; it was then, presumably, that he learned that most of his other forces were being beaten back. The Russian soldiers fought fiercely, and no one doubted their courage, but the Germans had better commanders, better-trained men, better equipment, and a better understanding of the situation.

Finally, by August 29 Samsonov began to figure out that Second Army was in retreat, close to defeat, even closer to panic. He may not have fully understood the situation, but the record shows that he seemed to be aware he was beaten. In effect, he resigned, not directly but by putting what remained of his army under his corps commanders. He still did not know precisely what the situation was, but he certainly must have known the battle was over. Units were breaking up, Russian soldiers streaming south in hopes of getting to the border. More than one corps commander was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a German prison. Many units were being surrounded and taken prisoner en masse.

Samsonov, driving north where he mistakenly thought he would find Russian units and give orders, was forced with a few staff officers to take cover in a wood the night of August 30 and try to find his way in the darkness. He lost contact with his staff and disappeared into the woods. A shot was heard, but more than a year passed before his body was recovered.

 

THE FINAL TOLL, AS ALWAYS, IS IN DISPUTE. The Germans claimed 170,000 Russian dead, wounded, or captured, and 500 guns taken, while the Russian figures were lower. In September the Eighth Army turned to its north, engaged the Russian First Army at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, and drove Rennenkampf from East Prussia, but with far fewer Russian losses in men and matériel. The war on the Eastern Front was hardly over, and Russia would attack again over the border with Prussia but never again with self-confidence. “Many officers,” writes military historian Max Hastings, “recognized that [their loss at Tannenberg] reflected the Tsarist army’s institutional inadequacy, together with a dearth of competent commanders, which would dog its battlefield performance to the end of its struggle in 1917.”

That was the year, of course, when the Russian Revolution changed everything. In 1917, after the Revolution, when the Bolshevik regime sued for peace, the Germans got the Lebensraum they wanted—at least for a little while—gobbling up huge stretches of Russian territory in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The defeat of Germany in 1918 restored these lands to Poland, but not until World War II did the Germans discover to their dismay that the Russian army could indeed fight well. MHQ

 

ANTHONY BRANDT is a frequent contributor to MHQ. His most recent book is The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage.

PHOTO: German infantrymen attack Russian artillery near Tannenberg. Süddeutsche Zeitung/Alamy Stock Photo

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Blind Bear at Bay.

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